I heard the world premiere of Steven Stucky’s August 4, 1964 with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and soloists with Jaap van Zweden last night in Dallas.
1. Not since the golden age of Handel oratorios has something like August 4, 1964 been so touching and well crafted; from the amazing libretto by Gene Scheer to the vocal soloist’s costumes, the evening was thought provoking and emotional. Supertitles brought clarity to the work, but with the diction of the soloists, it wasn’t needed but certainly appreciated. Still, small details like the italics for the Stephen Spender poem used in the score that hung on one of the mother’s wall after hearing about her son’s death, was brilliant to make a distinct between the rest of the libretto.
2. The mix between the Civil Rights and Vietnam War was just right – kudos for the balanced libretto from Gene Scheer, and for Stucky’s expressive score. Especially moving was the interaction of baritone Robert Orth and the chorus, often contrasting and supporting the storyline. Also the lyric lines of the female soloists, Laquita Mitchell and Kelley O’Connor, were not only performed exquistely, but had touching elements such as holding hands. (All four of the soloists were in period clothes of the 1960s, complete with hats for the women and slender ties for the men held by tie bars.) Staging had been thought about, complete with an oval office set, but was left undone without sufficient rehearsal time. Also, there was an idea to have an audio prelude or overture, with the actual White House tapes and news reports about this day in 1964. It was decided with the Meyerson’s acoustics, NOT to play it beforehand, but if you catch a pre-concert talk they play it there…perhaps it should be put online as well?
3. The 12 movements are broken up with large full orchestra moments, and at other times, chamber music with sparse chords. There is one orchestral interlude, an Elegy that comes in the middle of the work. August 4, 1964 is full of leitmotifs and structurally sound. Melodies and really, emotions, have their own personality through Stucky’s score. I thought it was at times overdone, an interval that the women sang at the ends of their phrases, that was central in the Elegy (which was written very early in the compositional stage.) However, grief (literally “The Saddest Moment”) is not something that just goes away, so this crafting of repeated intervals and its repeated use is quite deep. It also gives the listener the idea that Stucky spent more than just a few moments with the idea, and allows the tragic nature of the two issues to be heard.
4. Vale Rideout as Robert McNamara was pleasantly paced with fast talking and almost comedic elements, matched by Robert Orth as LBJ – who was much more the Texas slow talking, thoughtful character. Orth’s interpretation, complete with “dints” for “Didn’t” and more colloquial, laid back vocabulary, was spot on. Kelley O’Conor as Mrs. Goodman lent a sort of nervousness and hope to the role; while Laquita Mitchell as Mrs. Chaney showed anger, sorrow and righteousness in her voice. The Dallas Symphony Chorus was a star too, often taking a narrator role with the text and always in tune! It was a bit odd to hear amplified chorus soloists (perhaps 7 or 8 members), while a nice orchestration touch by Stucky to have individual chorus solos, who did not seem comfortable with the quick movement to get to microphones.
5. The work is about 70 minutes, and I could have easily heard it again (in fact I’ll go back on Saturday to hear it live again) on the program (and almost yelled Da Capo or Encore! during the standing ovation) after an intermission. However, that is not the case, as it is the only work on the program this weekend; and bravo to the DSO for commissioning a political evening length work during an election year. What a wonderful way to demonstrate the relevance of the events 44 years ago to today, and the revelance of classical music in our society! Truth be told, Stucky’s August 4, 1964 is deserving to be the only piece on a program (I was trying to imagine what you would put on with it – Survivor from Warsaw; Beethoven 9; Nixon in China or Chairman Dances; and nothing seems to fit really.) The emotional and musical journey of August 4, 1964 is satisfying, inspiring and enough to fill this program – it has had a good start, now I hope it sees many more.
Performances continue through Sunday at the Meyerson. See some photos over here at ClassicallyHip.